Election fever hits St Kilda

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By: Daniel Wilson

Council elections are looming for the City of Port Phillip. Compulsory for residents and voluntary for rate payers, voting will occur on October 27th.

Four of the seven current Councillors will be stepping down, including Mayor Rachel Powning and Deputy Mayor Frank O’Conner – both residing on Port Phillip Council for one term. Powning attributes the turnover to a general trend in local government, due to longer terms. She did concede “there had been a lot of change in the organisation and in Council, [and] a lot of policy review, so it has been quite an arduous term for Councillors who have worked very very hard”.

At the last election in 2008, Council changed its stripes dramatically. Port Phillip Council made national headlines in 2007 when they approved the St Kilda Triangle development. It was a $365 million entertainment complex, which included nightclubs, restaurants, a shopping mall, supermarket, hotel and cinema – and it was to be built on crown land. Residents were incensed, and by the end of 2008 Councillors who were once for the development found themselves no longer on Council.

A community group formed around this issue, called: UnChain St Kilda. Headed by Serge Thomann, they brought public attention to the situation through a series of cleverly orchestrated media stunts. Two candidates that were endorsed by unChain St Kilda, Serge Thomann and Jane Touzeau, were elected to Council in 2008 – but it was too late, the contract with the developer was binding. An attempt to overturn planning approval in VCAT (Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal) failed in 2009. Following that decision, Council paid the developer $5 million to walk away from the project. This episode of St Kilda’s history has been immortalised in an award winning feature documentary titled The Triangle Wars (available to watch on www.theage.tv)

The developer also walked away from commitments, such as decontaminating toxic waste under the site and refurbishing the Palais Theatre, amounting to $65 million. Three-time Mayor, Dick Gross was a proponent of the original development, and in 2008 narrowly lost his seat on Council to Greens candidate John Middleton. While Dick Gross concedes the old development is history, he is standing for Council once more.

Several years on, the Palais is still in need of refurbishment. Neil Croker, CEO of Palais Theatre Management, told St Kilda News it is “important that the Palais continues to flourish and grow, [and] that it has money found for its long term investment”.

Council has of course not been sitting on its hands these past few years. It has developed and adopted St Kilda Triangle 2012 – the Vision, planning and design framework for the St Kilda Triangle site.

This new Vision seems to have split opinion once again. The most vocal detractor perhaps is Dick Gross who told St Kilda News: “The 2012 Vision Framework is not worth the paper it is written on. It is uncosted and there is no financial plan,” and he blames unChain. Councillor Serge Thomann concedes: “It has taken longer than I had envisaged”, but explained, “the vision we have now is the vision that the community endorses and owns”.

Dick Gross argues it could take decades to realise this plan. Outgoing Mayor, Rachel Powning admits: “It will take a long time to realise the plan, because it is a very expensive task we have ahead of us. There is no denying that”.

For her seat of Carlisle Ward, the Mayor has endorsed Gerry McLoughlin, who came out unfavourably against the Vision: “My profession is as an urban designer and as a visioner. I am disappointed with the Vision document that Council has delivered. The document doesn’t provide any vision… I think the wrong people were shaping that document and I don’t think it showed the leadership that it needs”.

McLoughlin, a Community Alliance of Port Phillip candidate, laments the funding hole that has beset the Palais Theatre: “I think State Government should play a part. [The] City of Port Phillip needs to play a part in order to find a way to refurbish the Palais – that is a critical project”.

Also vowing for the seat of Carlisle Ward is unChain candidate Vanessa Huxley, who praised the Vision document: “I think it reflects a lot of consultation with the community, which is really important, particularly for that project”.

The Greens are also standing a candidate in Carlisle Ward, Tim Baxter, who will; “support a plan that is green, open, and for the community”.

Defending his seat against Dick Gross in Junction Ward, Councillor John Middleton was relieved that the 2007 plan was consigned to history, but does concede the current Vision has “challenges ahead relating to design, staging, funding, etc…” and went on to say; “Council should, and I’m sure it will, continue the conversation with the community at every stage”.

It seems that the St Kilda Triangle will be on the agenda for some time to come. And another project with funding shortfalls has been added to Councils headaches.

Earlier this year Council approved plans to redevelop St Kilda Harbour. The pier is nearing the end of its life and needs to be replaced. The wave climate also needs improvement to make the harbour safer.

In 2008 Parks Victoria published the St Kilda Harbour Concept Plan. A new pier would see a 80 x 25 metre elliptical sea pool surrounded by tiered timber seating incorporated into the pier. A modest breakwater extension and Penguin observation and protection boardwalk would improve the Penguin habitat. The marina would be extended from 200 to 600 berths, and the marina boardwalk, which forms the spine of the marina, would be opened up for public access. Further additions to the harbour would include an integrated wave screen into the pier, a floating wave attenuator, a boat repair and storage yard, a ferry terminal, a wave protection/swimming island south of the pier, an inner harbour lower boardwalk, and an all access swimming ramp and water playspace. The public was invited to comment and over 130 submissions were received.

Funding the project seems to be the biggest hurdle though, so the plan was revised to make it cheaper, for example: the floating wave attenuator is being replaced with a 100 meter long rock breakwater extension, which in fact will be a boon to the local Penguin population, extending their nesting grounds.

The Royal Melbourne Yacht Squadron has committed to extending the marina and breakwater, which is a $40 million project. The State Government has thus far committed $1.2 million toward the harbour redevelopment, which is well short of the funding needed for the new pier, let alone a new sea pool.

Mayor Rachel Powning was disappointed with the State Governments commitment: “What is funded to date, is really only going to benefit the marina itself. And that is not the way I think public money should be used”.

Councillor Serge Thomann is hopeful that money will be found: “The pier is in a bad state, and the State Government, who is responsible for it, is aware of the need to refurbish the pier, which is a $20 – $30 million project and hopefully that will be found in next year’s budget”.

Dick Gross did not mince words: “It is not a safe harbour for boating and I support any work to make it safe. However, the current plan is problematic as it fails to take up the advantages for the community of a new pier, with new on shore open space and sheltered swimming facilities. It is another opportunity being wasted by the State Government who is being let off the hook by the current Port Phillip Council”.

Funding aside, Councillor John Middleton liked many aspects of the St Kilda Harbour Concept Plan, but does not “support the proposals for a future large increase in the number of moorings and a massive offshore boat-repair yard”. Similarly Greens candidate Tim Baxter was in favour of making the harbour safer, but said that issues would have to be looked at, such as: “concerns about the marine ecosystem and the effects that sediment and boat repair materials can have on the sea floor”.

Back on land, St Kilda Junction has been a point of controversy for some time now. In the 1960s a decision was made to reorganise St Kilda Junction and widen High Street (now known as St Kilda Rd). Buildings had to be demolished including the Grand Junction Hotel, a majestic 19th century building with a five story corner tower soaring into the sky. What was left in its wake has been described as ugly, and one of Melbourne’s most dangerous intersections.

It is where three postcodes meet, Melbourne 3000, Windsor 3181, and East St Kilda 3183, and it is also the boarder of two planning scheme zones. The Department of Planning and Community Development has classified north of the Junction as B5Z (Business Zone 5) and south of the Junction as B2Z (Business Zone 2), which might explain how north of the Junction stands skyscrapers, while south of the Junction buildings are medium to low density. Perhaps it is because of the Port Phillip Council Amendment C62 to the Planning Scheme which calls for achieving “high quality urban design and architecture that… integrates with the prevailing neighbourhood character”.

Either way, south of the Junction is about to change, with at least two developments of 18 and 26 stories to be built there. Council did knock these proposals back, but the decisions were overturned by VCAT and the Minister for Planning.

Candidate Gerry McLoughlin has first hand experience in this process: “I have been to VCAT a number of times. A lot of developers are quite cynical about it – they already factor in funds for VCAT in order to go over the head of Council’s process. That is very unfortunate. There are a lot of stages before then where you can go into discussion with developers about how to get the right outcome”.

McLoughlin went on to say: “St Kilda Junction is a hotspot and I don’t think we have sufficient controls in the Planning Scheme at the moment to have the right framework for discussions with the developers. It is going to be important to have those discussions and that they be rigorous in order to achieve good design outcomes”.

Councillor Serge Thomann laments the fact that these buildings are going ahead, and fellow unChain member Vanessa Huxley supports “the document that the current Council adopted, C62, that divides the city into zones showing low, moderate and high growth,” she went on to deride; “VCAT keeps approving inappropriate developments in St Kilda Junction and unChain’s policy is to work on stricter planning controls to be put in place for this area”.

Although Council is facing more urban planning issues than those that have been mentioned here thus far, such as the Fishermans Bend Precinct, the Balaclava Station redevelopment, and the Marina Reserve redevelopment, it is only one aspect of what Council does.

St Kilda has been a refuge for drug affected people, and non-governmental organisations, such as the Sacred Heart Mission or the Father Bob McGuire Foundation, have gone some way in alleviating the stresses that this causes.

Last year Yarra City Council urged the State Government to build a supervised injecting room, but their request was rejected by the Bailliue government. Ever since the Kings Cross injecting room was opened over ten years ago there have been intermittent calls for one to be opened in St Kilda. The Burnett Institute and the Yarra Drug and Health Forum have called for a mobile supervised injecting room that could visit St Kilda’s drug hot spot.

The Councillors and candidates that were asked if they would support a supervised injecting room in St Kilda were mostly pretty warm to the idea. Many had reservations about its necessity, location and impact, but this was one issue where many would agree, as Councillor John Middleton put it: “Supervised injecting facilities are a proven harm-minimisation tool. There is compelling evidence that such facilities save lives”.

Alas, it seems unlikely that the State Government will heed the advice, and syringes will remain the hallmark of Jackson Street.

The protest is louder, however, for live music. Individuals and groups, such as the St Kilda Live Music Community, have brought this issue to the fore. As Michelle Harrington, founder of the St Kilda Rock Chronicles, put it to St Kilda News: “People have been living and visiting this city, well forever, in search of culture at all times of the day/night,” and there is some head-scratching going on when she explains that; “St Kilda experienced issues with noise complaints and access to venues for live performances”.

Perhaps in light of this development, Councillor Serge Thomann suggested: “Council should help in the promotion of live music,” and went on to say, “We set up the Live Music Working Group, which is something I have been advocating for. We had our first meeting [in August] and I am looking forward to making some serious progress on the matter”. Music is close to his heart having been a photographer for bands such as INXS not long after moving to Australia from France.

In his next term, Thomann hopes to set up a “Port Phillip cultural fund or cultural foundation,” as a means to fund more arts projects.

Fellow unChain member Vanessa Huxley adds: “St Kilda has a great entertainment and arts aspect to it, and it is important that Council does what it can to help encourage and grow that”.

Candidate Gerry McLoughlin is also an avid supporter of live music, quipping: “I really support live music – I am a member of a community choir, La Voce Della Luna”.

Former Mayor Dick Gross also exclaimed his support: “Last election I fought hard to open new venues on the Triangle site but that idea was defeated. Nonetheless it does demonstrate my commitment to live music and I still support the idea of new venues in appropriate locations”.

Both Greens candidates that St Kilda News spoke to were also quick to rush to the support of live music.

For the candidates,  it would seem the most vexing issues are St Kilda Harbour, St Kilda Triangle and St Kilda Junction. Presumably residents are divided on these issues as well, but as the democratic process would have it, come October 27 they will have their say.


Transcripts of some of the interviews conducted for this article are available on the St Kilda News website: www.stkildanews.com

To comment on this article email: daniel@stkildanews.com

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